The Brothers Karamazov

One of my goals for that trashfire of a just-completed year, 2020, was to finally, finally, finish The Brothers Karamazov, which I had been reading to a greater and lesser extent since 2018.

Dear reader, I finished.

I had expected, having taken a little bit to get stuck into Anna Karenina, that TBK would take a bit as well – it’s a large novel (700+ pages, depending on edition), and it has some similar narrative diversions to Anna Karenina (and Dickens and other novelists of the time) where it will pause to spend 30 pages discussing food or culture or a dream one of the characters had as a child. But after I got re-used to the style of AK, I had really enjoyed it, and I’m similar with Dickens et al – the first couple chapters drag for me, but once I settle into it, I’m fine.

Not Dostoyevsky, apparently. Gosh. It’s a book of thirteen parts, and it takes the first seven, more than half the narrative, to fully introduce the characters and their predicament, and it took me so long to get through the 400 pages of exposition that I had to go back and read the Wikipedia page to remember who was who and what was happening.

Partially, this was because I never did manage to make any sort of emotional connection to any of the characters, and honestly with this kind of book, you may not be supposed to? It’s as much a treatise on philosophy and religion as anything, with the three brothers typifying different “types of man” all caught in a shared situation. I think I could have found 300 pages of that interesting, but not 700, but then I always did get frustrated in my philosophy classes, too, so that may be more about me than about the book.

The basics of the story are that three brothers (Dmitri, Ivan, and Alyosha) are estranged from their father and somewhat from each other. The father and the oldest brother are in love with the same woman, Grushenka, and the brothers all three have different emotional/intimate relationships with another woman, Katya. One day, the father turns up murdered, and the obvious culprit is Dmitri, who had been running around town making a fuss about needing money to marry Grushenka and has now turned up a couple towns over with lots of money and blood all over him. The rest of the novel is about his trial, and how his brothers (and the town) deal with the fall-out.

Admittedly, once the father was murdered, the book got much more interesting in terms of plot – action began to happen, and we moved from having long monologues about thinking to at least having long monologues about acting. However, as the events devolve, so do the characterizations, at least in my opinion. Again, I suspect this is a product of what Dostoyevsky is intentionally doing here: these are not meant (I assume) to be realistic characters in a realistic situation, but rather vehicles for his own “but what if?” questions about human nature and social institutions. In the abstract, they’re interesting, but unfortunately for the author, they also reveal more and more of his own prejudices which are hard to stomach as a modern reader, like, for example, that all women are some kind of crazy or stupid, and the only question is which kind.

It’s interesting, because it’s not like Anna Karenina (or Vanity Fair or David Copperfield) was missing misogyny or patriarchy or even some pretty gross classism/racism/etc, but the story and characters were compelling enough to me that I was willing to be along for the ride. Brothers Karamazov just had me continually making faces.

Tl;dr: I don’t regret having read it; it’s something referenced enough in our culture that it’s nice to know what it’s talking about, and the base of the story is interesting. But I can’t see myself reading it again for pleasure.

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